'Masked men beat us with batons': Greece accused of violent asylum seeker pushbacks

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Ihsan Erdogan
Ihsan Erdogan
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Scores of Turkish asylum seekers have been pushed back — sometimes violently — from Greece in the last three weeks, lawyers and family members told Euronews.

Witnesses claim various groups of masked men in military uniform, as well as those in plain clothes collaborating with the police, used physical force against those who resisted.

There have been 82 people from Turkey, including children, that have sought political asylum in neighbouring Greece and been sent back since April 23.

Around half have been detained or arrested by Turkish authorities upon their return to their home country on terrorism charges.

They have been linked to the Gulen Movement, which Ankara blames for the failed 2016 coup, or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who have been involved in an armed struggle with the Turkish state over independence.

The European Commission has urged Greece to follow up on the allegations that Euronews has detailed in this article.

'Violently pushed back'

"We are Turkish political asylum seekers," began Ayse Erdogan in a video she sent to a family member.

"We fled persecution in Turkey and crossed [at] Evros on May 4, at 5 am. We are hiding near Nea Vyssa [on the Greek-Turkey land border] in fear of a push back. We urge the United Nations and Greek authorities to protect us from being pushed back.”

Ayse, who had crossed the border with friends Kamil and Talip, was picked up by Greek police and taken into custody at a police station in the village of Nea Cheimonio. Hours later, Ayse would be part of a group of migrants that were allegedly violently pushed back to Turkey by Greek police.

Nea Cheimonio was the last place that Ayse's family was able to pick up a location signal from her phone.

The same day, accompanied by a lawyer, Ayse's twin brother, Ihsan Erdogan, who is a registered asylum seeker in Greece, went to the police station in Nea Cheimonio, based on her last location information. He was told his sister and her friends had never been held there.

On May 5, Ihsan received a phone call from a family member saying his sister had been imprisoned by a court in the northwestern province of Edirne, over the border in Turkey.

The relative had spoken to Ayse, who said her Turkish group, along with a number of Syrians, had been handed over to a group of masked men soon after they left the police station in Nea Cheimonio. Greek police, she claimed, seized their belongings including her phone.

Ihsan rues that his sister was seemingly sent back just before he arrived in Nea Cheimonio. “I urge Greek authorities not to send others like my sister back to prison,” he told Euronews.

'Masked men beat us with batons'

Freshly-graduated as a mathematics teacher, Ayse had spent 28 months in prison over alleged affiliation with the Gulen Movement, an organisation Turkish authorities have outlawed.

Hundreds of people were arrested in the aftermath of the failed putsch in 2016 and accused of links to US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Ayse was not the only political asylum seeker allegedly sent back to Turkey in what appears to be a violation of international asylum law.

On April 26 this year, at Soufli, a border town near Evros River, a group of 11 people — including three children, a pregnant woman and another one that was disabled — was sent back by masked men after being beaten violently, according to a journalist in the group.

“Masked men beat us with batons," said Tugba Ozkan, who is 28 and pregnant. "We are in a very dire situation. We are afraid to be pushed back again. We need help.

“I had forgotten about my pregnancy,” she added. “I tried to stop Greek police by moving ahead but they pushed me, too. It was unbelievable and unforgettable to see my husband beaten in front of my eyes.”

No acknowledgement from Athens

According to the account of the group, the police cooperated with a group of masked men who forced them to return to Turkey. The group managed to cross the border again the next day, only to be detained officially and come face-to-face with a police officer who had pushed them back at Soufli. They were released under the protection of a UNHCR officer on April 30.

Greek NGOs published reports last year with testimonies from people from various nationalities who were allegedly sent back to Turkey via Evros after being beaten by masked men.

The UN's refugee agency (UNHCR) and the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe urged Greek authorities to investigate those reports.

The claims of violent push back operations at Evros river, however, have never ended. None have been officially acknowledged by Athens.

Greece police declined to comment after requests by Euronews regarding the latest push back allegations.

A European Commission spokesman, speaking to Euronews, said that they were aware of the recent push back claims.

“The Commission expects that the Greek authorities will follow up on the specific allegations and will continue to closely monitor the situation,” he said.